Affirmative Action At Work

"Diversity," that much maligned term, is emblazoned on the foreheads of today's corporate executives, legislators, educators, and marketing gurus. It's difficult to pick up any national publication without being cajoled into taking a stand on the Affirmative Action debate--which, by the way, isn't even the same thing as diversity, though many of us are convinced that it is. What's all the fuss about and what have we to learn from kindred species about the true meaning and benefits of this buzzword of the '90s?A Grim Fairy Tail Imagine a world without diversity. It would be hard to tell one person from another because we would all look and dress alike. We would all have the same inane conversations since everyone would think alike. There wouldn't be much conflict, but there would be very little levity, either. We'd have about three things to eat. We couldn't have team sports because they require too much variety in roles and skills. Everyone would have to appreciate the same style. All of our literature would be contributed by one group author. Only one political party would exist, but it wouldn't matter. There would be no need to vote on anything since we would all see things the same way. It takes only a few seconds to realize how remarkably bland and frighteningly fragile our human lives would be without the diversity that we take for granted. More importantly, it's easy to picture how quickly this kind of society would come tumbling down if threatened from the outside. The common sense practice of pulling on the strength derived from diversity to fend off threats is readily apparent when we turn to the plant kingdom for role models.We Have Much To Learn From Nature Biodiversity, of course, provides resistance to disease, pestilence, and protection from eventual extinction. Conservationists have widely held that the more species in an ecosystem, the more hearty and stable it is. Recent studies back this up with hard data. Research by Dr. David Tilman of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and Dr. John Downing of the University of Montreal was highlighted in a recent article on species diversity in the Environment section of the New York Times. Drs. Tilman and Downing found, in studies of prairie ecosystems, that grassland plots containing the greatest variety of plant species were able to retain more of their vegetative cover and also recovered quicker from drought conditions than plots with less species diversity. Tilman believes that when ecosystems contain a greater number of species, it is more likely that any individual species will be resistant to diseases or threats. More importantly, this condition could apply to any ecosystem, so that biodiversity, according to Tilman, is Mother Nature's insurance policy against natural disasters. One telling biological disaster occurred in 1970 when southern leaf blight nearly destroyed the genetically uniform corn crop in the United States. More than 80 percent of the commercially grown U.S. crop was susceptible to the disease. But this plague was eventually quelled by locating a resistant African corn variety and incorporating its resistance into our domestic crop. Diversity to the rescue.Smart, Healthy Corporations Get the Connection Without giving mother nature credit for the idea, many American companies have climbed aboard the diversity bandwagon. Their goal is to capitalize on the richness of human potential that lies untapped in their workforce. Diversity in the workplace means creating an environment where people from dissimilar backgrounds can work productively together. Would businesses have marched down the diversity path were it not for outside threats? This question lies at the heart of the current debate over Affirmative Action. Many argue that corporations have been forced to straighten up and fly right due to the threat of EEOC audits, and they credit this behavior with providing women and people of color a place at the table.Ready, Fire, AimMuch of the current public outcry about Affirmative Action arises from misperceptions about use of quotas to hire so-called diverse candidates. Ironically, both the 1964 and the 1991 Civil Rights Acts banned the use of quotas. Court and administrative orders by Presidents Johnson and Nixon put the heat on federal agencies, private enterprise and the public sector to give preference to minorities and to women in hiring and promotions to relieve systemic discrimination. It sounded great, but survivors of the 1970s revolving door of hiring and letting go qualified candidates admit that the Affirmative Action system was sometimes blatantly abused. Managers did what they were told, and often the most expedient approach was to "go find us one," whether that was a minority or a female. But laws and edicts may not be the only reason to pay attention to the diversity of our workforce. The 1987 Hudson Institute Report for the U.S. Department of Labor, "Workforce 2000," was a dramatic wake-up call for corporate America on the demographics of its workforce. Essentially, the demographic landscape of the U.S., the report said, are changing so dramatically that the average white male manager who thinks there will be plenty of white male clones to hire will be shocked to encounter a room full of Rosa Lopezes dutifully struggling through employment applications. According to the 1990 census, in the decade of the 1980s, America's Asian population more than doubled, the Latino population grew by more than 50 percent, the Native American population grew by nearly 38 percent, the black population grew approximately 13 percent. but the white population actually declined by nearly three percent. The Workforce 2000 report made many corporate executives come to grips with the reality that the American workforce is simply becoming far more non-white and female. Unfortunately, Workforce 2000 also helped fuel the myth that white men are somehow becoming extinct. Though their extinction is not likely if we keep them away from cigarettes and cheeseburgers, the reality is that their power base in the workplace, from a strictly numerical standpoint, is eroding.Dollars and Sense So if Affirmative Action went away, would American businesses hire and promote women and people of color out of self interest? Both the optimists and the wildly skeptical have reason to believe as they do. In the optimist camp, folks argue that corporations are in business to generate returns to their shareholders and appealing to a diverse market simply makes economic sense. What better way to reach a diverse consumer base than to have people on staff that represent that diversity an understand how to tap into new markets? Makes sense, but we know that companies sometimes blow it. The automaker Fiat had to undertake a mass mailing of apology letters and rethink its marketing approach after its anonymous mailing of come hither notes to young Spanish women backfired. Seems these women were downright frightened of getting anonymous mail suggesting that they "have a little affair" and didn't suspect that the paramour was a car company. Were there any women on the ad campaign? Okay, so that happened in Spain, you say, but examples abound closer to home.Belief in a Shrinking Pie Why wouldn't businesses want to hire talent, no matter what its color, shape or size? We have gay, lesbian and bisexual people, people with disabilities, older workers, men and women of all colors who just want to come to work and feel they can contribute to their highest potential. Can't we say in 1995 that corporate America's doors are open to all of them? The answer depends on who you talk to. Folks that argue most vigorously for a color-blind selection process, those that are convinced that America is a meritocracy, are least likely to have experienced systemic oppression themselves. (We are never very aware of the privileges nonchalantly handed us until we find them taken away.) White men who express backlash sentiments are expressing, in part, their weariness at seeing companies express commitment to hiring and retaining people of color in a climate of downsizing. At all such times of economic threat, backlash against minority groups is likely to ensue. So the question of whether companies would continue to support the hiring and promotion of women and people of color absent Affirmative Action is not really the pivotal one. The question is whether white men would even care about it if they did not feel they were getting re-engineered out of their jobs.A Low Priority If the death knell has in fact sounded for Affirmative Action, it is not likely that the current level of commitment to workforce diversity can be sustained. A recent Wall Street Journal article with comments by members of the federal Glass Ceiling Commission and human resources executives concluded that without legal requirements, most companies will let their commitment wane. This should come as no surprise, since after twenty years of Affirmative action programs, women hold only five percent of senior level jobs in corporations. African-Americans hold less than three percent of top jobs, defined as vice president and above. Laws and corporate policies can coerce individuals to be bias-free. But the reality is that hiring and promotion decisions, particularly at higher levels in companies, come down to how comfortable a manager is with the person who will be reporting to him or her. Many people lack experience and comfort with people who are culturally unlike themselves. Our discomfort with racial differences and disabilities and our outright homophobia--these more than any other factors will keep diversity from becoming a reality in American businesses. We are happy that our workplaces are talking about being minority friendly because after all, if people are qualified, they should have opportunities, but the reality is that we go home to our segregated communities and privately express our feelings with friends and family who all seem to look like us.The DON'T Wannabes An extensive USA Today analysis of 1990 census data showed that most of the roughly 30 million African Americans living in the U.S. are as segregated in the 1990s as they were in the 1960s when civil rights movement began in earnest. The USA Today data also showed that although we talk about diversity as a real multicultural agenda, the problems of segregation are most entrenched among blacks. Hispanics and Asians have been more readily accepted in neighborhoods that have never welcomed blacks, no matter what their income level. In this context, the term black is used intentionally over African American, since the issue really does seem to be about skin color. USA Today, in its series on the census results and segregation patterns, quotes University of Michigan sociologist Reynolds Farley's research on white resistance to desegregation. Farley states, "many suburban whites fear that if one black moves in, blacks will move in large numbers. Blackness is associated with declining property values and rising crime rates." In certain thriving afrocentric enclaves, including Chicago's Pill Hill and solidly middle class communities on the east coast like Prince George's County in Maryland, black residents also choose to live among people who look like themselves. But if the census data indicating the entrenched pattern of housing segregation are correct, people in these communities may simply be opting to live in a community where they know they will be welcomed. The recent controversy surrounding actions by the Village of Matteson's Board to attract white residents is a reminder of how segregated American communities are, and how hard it really is to make them diverse. If we take a lesson from biodiversity, Matteson, Illinois' goal of maintaining racial diversity looks like a proactive survival strategy. The community hopes to bring lives into a community to add to its racial diversity. Yet some black leaders look on and despair the fact that recruiting African Americans through similar efforts would never happen in our wildest dreams. And that is sad, but true. What Can We Learn As in the arena of exercise, we humans know intuitively that it's good for us, but that doesn't necessarily get us up off the couch. Diversity is good for us, but embracing diversity takes a lot of work, realistically. Yet Americans don't have a choice. The current heated debate over funding social programs may feel, in some respects, like a desire to turn back the clock to a time when our society appeared, at least on the surface, to be more homogeneous. But our society is diverse and is becoming more so by the day. We are at a critical point in our history because the complex social and environmental issues we face can only be effectively dealt with by acknowledging the diversity in class, values, lifestyle, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation that make up our cultural mosaic. Our strength lies in coming to grips with our fate of living inseparably on a crowded little planet and in understanding the critical nature of our shared stewardship.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.